Breaking Down Class Barriers in STEM

What can the government and universities do to stop the increasing homogenization of STEM in higher education?

Writer: Alexander Hancock
Editor: Altay Shaw
Artist: Rahel Kiss

While the UK Government continues to pour millions of pounds into promoting diversity in the world of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), the discourse regarding these disciplines in higher education has shifted from how finances are distributed, to where. As gender disparities continue to pervade the fields of physics and engineering, and racial inequities still riddle the world of tech, the widespread effort to diversify STEM in the UK has proven ‒ thus far ‒ largely unsuccessful. 

Low-income students are also largely underrepresented in STEM; an issue that is perhaps most evident in the transition from sixth form to higher education. Despite the fact that a third of the UK population lives in working-class households, only 15% of scientists come from these backgrounds. According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), seven of the 24 Russell Group universities have noted a decline in applications from disadvantaged students. 

Identifying the cause of the socio-economic divide within STEM in higher education throws into stark relief the number of obstacles that disadvantaged students face in pursuing these subjects at university. A report from King’s College London suggested that working-class students aged 10-14 were less likely to view science-related subjects as a viable career option because they rarely encountered people in those professions. Other obstructions stopping students from low-income backgrounds pursuing STEM in higher education include poor lab facilities in schools and a shortage of resources. A lack of understanding surrounding the university application process and expensive tuition fees have also been cited as barriers. 

If only 26% of students eligible for free school meals in state schools go on to higher education at the age of 19, the need to support adolescents in these groups is of utmost importance. So, how can the Government and universities help ensure that STEM in higher education is more representative of the UK population?

One way of shrinking the education gap within the UK might be by improving university outreach programmes. A lack of information regarding the application process, including how to construct a personal statement and prepare for interviews, is often credited as one of the factors that either dissuade or hinder low-income students in their pursuit to continue their learning. While Russell Group universities spent roughly £254 million in 2018 on outreach support for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, including bursaries and additional tutoring, the scheme found little success. Data from HESA indicated that half of Russel group universities admitted fewer disadvantaged students in 2018 then they did in 2017. 

There is wide interest in linking disadvantaged students who are interested in STEM with undergraduates or postgraduates who had similar upbringings. InsideUni, a student-run initiative that aims to provide guides and tips to disadvantaged students who are considering applying to Oxbridge, has proven to be a successful venture. Organised and designed by students who attended both state and private schools, the insight provided by the online space is rooted in students’ experiences with the application process. From preparing for interviews to sending off applications, the advice available to disadvantaged students is provided by students from similar backgrounds who are cognizant of the difficulties and barriers that low-income students face. Perhaps by arranging outreach programmes that are led by former university students who grew up in similar circumstances, disadvantaged students may feel more comfortable applying to study STEM at universities. 

A similar scheme, organised by Imperial College London, involved online webinars which sought to inform young Black students ‒ who were interested in studying STEM ‒ about applying to the university and the courses available to them. The seminars, some of which were hosted by former black students, attracted over 2,000 participants. As Wunmi Olatidoye, a graduate of Imperial, explained: “events like these give underrepresented students more confidence when applying to places like Imperial because their background no longer feels like an obstacle to success”. 

Ensuring that students in disadvantaged areas have access to adequate resources and equipment may also help to diversify STEM in higher education. Labelled the ‘digital divide’, many, including the chief executive of Greenwood Academies Trust, Wayne Norrie, have expressed concerns that the shortage of laptops in disadvantaged schools may have an impact on the learning of students: “In our schools, 60% to 70% of children wouldn’t have laptops”. Inequalities also exist in the scientific resources and equipment available to students in disadvantaged areas. Researchers discovered that 54% of state-funded primary schools lacked the “necessary equipment” required to teach science effectively. A shortage of microscopes, sampling kits and magnets, along with eye-protection goggles, have prevented a large portion of low-income students from participating in practical experiments, leading many to believe that their education has been hampered by poor access to equipment. These concerns highlight the need for increased government funding and better management of finances on the part of state schools, some of which were found to have spent an average of 28% of the practical science budget on photocopying.

Or perhaps the proposed university tuition reduction is the ultimate solution to diversifying STEM in higher education. With increasing debts from the cost of tuition and housing, some believe that cutting university tuition may allow students from disadvantaged areas the possibility of enrolling in higher education. What with the pandemic and its effects on the learning of low-income students, shedding light on the disparities within STEM and the barriers that disadvantaged students face in pursuing these subjects in higher education, is perhaps more important now, than ever.

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